From XTC to FML – two DIY publishers turned professional writers share their stories

9 May
Gill Sims in conversation with Emma Smith of Mum's the Word

Gill Sims in conversation with Emma Smith of Mum’s the Word

As the creator and editor of several publications covering an array of subjects over several decades, from a photocopied magazine about 1990s indie and dance music, to a blog about arts festivals (this ‘un), and a grown-up business news publication with actual advertising on it, I was excited to hear how two authors had embraced the DIY ethos to carve a career in writing.

My first stop was the Reading Room at Swindon Library, where Mark Fisher was talking to an enthusiastic crowd of XTC fans.

For 10 years Mark and his friend Paul Badger wrote and published the band’s fanzine, Limelight.

Surprisingly, the idea for a fanzine came before the idea of writing about XTC.

“Fanzine culture was in the air,” said Mark. “Kids were speaking for themselves rather than relying on the inkies [Sounds / NME / Melody Maker] and you either formed a band, or formed a fanzine about one.

“So the idea of writing a fanzine came first. After that we asked ourselves: who about?”

Mark had been getting into Swindon-based rock band XTC, and – aged 16 – he and Badger decided to base their fanzine around the band.

As these were the days pre-websites and social media, the Wirral-based duo could only think of one way to contact the band. “We went to our local library, got the Swindon telephone directory, and set about finding all the D Gregorys, A Partridges, T Chambers and C Mouldings we could.”

Incredibly, a letter meant for guitarist Dave Gregory ended up at the Swindon home of an unrelated D Gregory. But the recipient shared a hairdresser with the mother of vocalist Andy partridge, and the letter duly made its way to the correct Dave Gregory, who wrote an encouraging letter back.

With the band’s support, the two young scribes set about researching publishing options. Printing cost £260 for 1,000 copies. Professional typing cost another £40. One or two sheets of Letraset formed the headlines for each edition. The mastheads were hand-drawn and no two were ever the same. Copies sold for between 15 and 20p. Limelight was very much a labour of love.

“We imagined we would follow the band around, and sell 1,000 copies a night,” said Mark. “But the first issue coincided with the band’s decision not to tour any more.” Instead, distribution was through record shops and a mailing list. Copies were sent all over the world. Interviews with band members were conducted by telephone.

The final issue hit the shelves in 1992. Only nine issues of Limelight had been published over the course of a decade, but the band members were – and still are – grateful for the exposure the fanzine afforded them. Years later, Andy Partridge would call the fanzine “a lifeline” and “the internet with added staples”.

After Limelight ceased publication, Mark followed a career in arts journalism and is now a theatre reviewer. But an XTC-related skit by stand-up Joanna Neary and a chance conversation between Mark’s daughter and comedian Stewart Lee led to a request for back copies of the fanzine.

With only one copy of each in his possession, Mark decided to scan the originals. Those scans are now an anthology – The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls – accompanied by contributions from members of the band.

“It was a chance for me to reignite my inner teenage fanboy,” said Mark.

At the offset, the author had promised his audience of (mainly) 50-something men that the conversation would continue over a beer at a nearby pub. And as tempting as that sounded, I had to hotfoot it to the Arts Centre, to join a gaggle of 20- and 30-something wine-swigging women for an audience with Facebook sensation Gill Sims.

The Lit Fest was #SoBlessed to be #MakingMemories with the queen of the sarcastic hashtag, ‘Mummy’ from the Peter and Jane Facebook page, and subsequently author of the novel Why Mummy Drinks, and soon-to-be published follow-up Why Mummy Swears.

Gill has built quite a following on Facebook. At last count it was around eleventy-billion (okay, 358,000). Day by day, Gill recounts the trials and tribulations of raising children (the Precious Moppets), being married (to Gadget Twat), and having to cope with the demands of Judgy Dog.

Her brilliantly-observed, potty-mouthed posts wonderfully capture the joy and agony of bringing up kids. They normally appear on my timeline at teatime as I’m standing in the kitchen waiting for something to bake / boil / heat through to prevent two ravenous children from committing hunger-related fratricide, so they ring true.

Her anecdotes usually conclude with the author collapsed in a chair, glass of wine in hand, Judgy Dog on her lap, and the sign-off FML which, she helpfully explains, stands for Fuck My Life.

She didn’t invent FML, but she may well claim credit for Fuck It All Friday, a concept that elicits cheers from her overwhelmingly female audience (I’ve not been such a minority since The Vagina Monologues at Newbury Corn Exchange some 15 years ago) which, once a week, sees battle-weary parents abandon all hope of raising well-nourished, well-educated children by allowing them unfettered access to iPads and to gorge themselves on pizza.

Among the audience of devotees were a fair number of members of the Swindon writing group Mum’s the Word, which provides writers who are also mums with the opportunity to meet, critique work, and maybe *coughs* enjoy a glass of wine.

So a lot of the audience questions were about the process of writing – and juggling writing with raising children – and getting published.

Gill said the discipline of writing daily posts of 500 to 1,000 words had sharpened her skills. “When I look back at the first blogs, they were a lot clumsier. They got a lot more polished,” she said.

Writing takes place while the children are at school. She talked about the pain of writing – often accompanied by tears – and how her husband – “he isn’t a gadget twat… but he does have an awful lot of gadgets,” was both her biggest critic and her loudest cheerleader.

The creative process, she explained, involved taking “something that has happened and making it more dramatic.” Sometimes things the Girl Child has said come out of the mouth of Boy Child. Other times Boy Child’s actions transfer to Girl Child. Incidents are rarely contemporaneous. “It’s not a record of what happened that day,” she insisted.

Other un-named, recurring characters are the perfect parents with their perfect children. These angelic offspring are familiar to everyone with a Facebook account, appearing with the hashtags #SoBlessed and #MakingMemories. Mummy’s attempts at #MakingMemories – perhaps with some kind of middle class cultural activity, or attempting to get her offspring to eat fresh vegetables – usually backfire spectacularly and hilariously.

“Everyone can recognise those playground mums,” said Gill. “What I was surprised at the number of perfect mummies who said to me ‘that’s how I feel’,”

She’d always harboured ambitions to write a novel but “never thought it would happen”. But the success of the Facebook page led to an approach from an agent, then interest from publisher Harper Collins. In the run-up to Christmas, Why Mummy Drinks became a bestseller: a fact Gill failed to mention and which had to be teased out by festival director Matt Holland.

What delighted me most about Gill Sims was how relatable and self-effacing she is. She laughed at her own habit of ending a well-given answer to every question with “I don’t know, really.” She held back on the swearing, until it occurred to her that she was truly among friends, and – egged on by the audience – a few profanities slipped through.

Far from being on the promotional treadmill, this was apparently only her second literature festival appearance – and her largest to date. She’d flown from Glasgow to be with the Swindon crowd. She admitted to being very nervous, and professed a desire to see the Magic Roundabout – both of which made us love her more.

When I got home from the event, I found a short post on Facebook, accompanied by a picture of her Swindon Festival of Literature dressing room door:

“I have abandoned Gadget Twat, Judgy Dog and the precious moppets to their fate (probably egg and chips for dinner) and have made it to Sunny Swindon, to take part in the Literary Festival, and I HAVE A DRESSING ROOM!

“I’m not quite sure what to DO in my dressing room as I forgot my jaunty beret (and it is too hot for a beret anyway, it really IS sunny here) so I can’t sit and adjust it to a suitably Artistic angle, but I am still very excited!

“And really thrilled at the chance to meet some of you this evening, hopefully I will make sense, and I will try my best not to do that really annoying thing of laughing at my own feeble jokes that I seem to do in FB lives!

“PS – do you think it would be frowned upon to steal the sign and put it on a door at home?”

And that is why you need to follow Peter and Jane on Facebook and grab a copy of Why Mummy Drinks.

Gill's dressing room door

Mark Fisher and Gill Sims appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature on Tuesday, May 8. The walk between the two venues was uphill and took 15 minutes. And I didn’t get a beer. FML.

Words by Peter Davison. Gill Sims image © Fernando Bagué

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